“Then you win:” A family visit to Occupy St. Louis

When you’re a parent, there is plenty to feel guilty about.  My kids don’t eat enough vegetables, I don’t always  keep my cool during temper tantrums (I’m pretty sure there is surveillance footage from the parking lot of Shop N Save to verify this), and there will never be enough money in their college fund to ensure they don’t graduate with a mountain of debt.  But one item on my own parental guilt list that I’ve been dwelling on lately is that we haven’t done a particularly good job introducing our daughters to current events.  When I was growing up, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch was on our breakfast table every morning, and Tom Brokaw was on our television every night at 5:30.  It wasn’t the New York Times or the McNeil-Lehrer News Hour, but it was enough to, almost by osmosis, make me think from a very young age about what was going on in the world outside my neighborhood.  One of my first vivid memories was watching the American hostages being released from Iran on TV.  I was five.

But the way we get news has changed radically since the 1980s.  My husband and I never watch the nightly newscast on NBC, ABC, or CBS, and we stopped having the newspaper delivered a few years back.  We get our news in a very solitary way, reading articles on various websites and then reading longer, more in-depth articles in the New Yorker.  Our daughters (ages 4, 5, and 7) don’t see or read news coverage on a regular basis themselves.  We talk about politics or world events at the dinner table or at family gatherings, but they don’t have daily doses of news in the same way my husband and I did as children.

So, when we had the unusually lucky circumstance last Friday of both my husband being off work and my daughters being off school, we thought it would be a good idea for the girls to see some news firsthand: we headed down to Occupy St. Louis at Kiener Plaza.  My husband and I had followed the spread of the Occupy movement from New York to cities worldwide, and supported the idea of a populist movement from the left.  But we hadn’t seen it for ourselves, so we picked up a case of bottled water and some snacks to donate to the Occupiers and headed down.

On the way, we talked to the girls about what Occupy St. Louis was about and how it was part of a larger movement.  In language we hoped at least our oldest two would understand, we talked about why people would take the time to set up camp in the middle of downtown St. Louis and what exactly it was they were trying to draw attention to.  The girls asked some good questions, “What are taxes?  What do they pay for?” “Who decides how much money people get at their jobs?” and it was humbling to fumble around trying to give clear explanations to them.

Parking was easy, the weather was nice, and when we got down to Kiener Plaza the mood was…serene.  Subdued.  Peaceful.  I wasn’t sure what to expect, but Occupy St. Louis was a far cry from the angry, smelly mob of loud-mouths that certain parts of the blogosphere had written about.  There were a lot of tents set up, and posters and signs were on just about every available pillar.  Most of the occupiers seemed to be meeting in the center of Kiener Plaza and talking calmly about strategies and ideas; they were holding what they called their General Assembly.  No one rushed over to us to ask us why we were there, but there was a welcome table with a couple brochures explaining what the movement was about.  We brought the water and food we were donating to a tent set up to accept donations, and then we walked slowly around the periphery of the plaza, looking at all the posters.  We got pretty bogged down trying to explain a poster about CEO pay to the girls, but they were definitely interested in what was going on.

The internal organization of Occupy St. Louis was impressive—in addition to a welcome table, there was a kitchen/food area, a media/work area, and (as I mentioned before) a tent set up to accept donated items.  The people who were not participating in the General Assembly sat around enjoying the fall day, said hi as we walked by, and made casual conversation.

Kids being kids, my daughters were drawn to the steps by the fountain at Kiener Plaza and immediately began running up and down them and playing.  While they did this my husband and I had a strange, rambling, but pleasant conversation with a man from Oregon who, like us, seemed to be there just to see what was going on.  After a while, we decided to head back to the car and get some ice cream at Crown Candy before heading home.

There was little doubt in my mind that my daughters would remember the ice cream at Crown Candy more than our relatively brief trip to Occupy St. Louis.   But I was pleased that the girls’ first trip to a demonstration was a positive one.  On the news, demonstrations seem loud and scary, but Occupy St. Louis was a model for “peaceful assembly.”  I hoped the images of people sitting, talking earnestly about issues, saying casual hellos to those walking by would stick with them.

But you never really know what lessons your kids will learn from a particular experience, or if they’ll learn any at all.  I doubt my parents were conscious of the fact that I was riveted by the video of the hostages being released back in 1981—they were too busy taking it in themselves.  And so it is with Occupy St. Louis.  I was gratified, though, when I listened in on a conversation my sister had with my oldest daughter later that night.  She was asking my seven year-old what she had remembered from the visit to Occupy St. Louis, and my daughter said, “I remember a poster of a skinny bald guy that said, ‘First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.’  That was cool.”   If my seven year-old can retain the spirit of that famous quote from Gandhi, then our little family field trip to Occupy St. Louis was time incredibly well spent.